Loose Lips Sink Ships

How El Chapo’s rookie error cost him his freedom

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is a Mexican crime lord and leader of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, the group responsible for supplying a large amount of drugs to the US market, and the wider world. El Chapo has twice escaped from Mexican “high-security” prisons, firstly in 2001 when he escaped via a laundry cart and most recently in July 2015, when he evaded Mexican authorities and fled his cell through a sophisticated underground tunnel. The power of the crime boss cannot be doubted, but his recent capture showed the world that El Chapo might not be as crafty as the world had previously believed.

6 months after his 2015 escape, as El Chapo lay low in the coastal city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa, he was captured by Mexican marines after extended surveillance and communication monitoring. The raid did not go entirely to plan, with El Chapo and his lieutenant escaping through a tunnel which led to the city’s sewage system. Thereafter, the cartel boss stole a car before being captured 20km away, in the town of Juan Jose Rios, after officers refused his attempts to bribe them. As the world awoke to the news of the capture, the most baffling part of this tale was still to be uncovered.

After the capture, it began circulating that El Chapo had met with US actor Sean Penn and Mexican star Kate del Castillo several months prior to his arrest, after Castillo had written to the boss several times requesting an interview. In what was a completely unprecedented move for the cartel boss, who was previously known as a shy figure who continually denied his links to drug trafficking, El Chapo told Penn he had a “fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats” and that he supplied “more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world”.

Thereafter, Mexican officials confirmed that communications between the Mexican drug lord and the American actor had played a key role in locating El Chapo. Even prior to his eventual capture, Mexican authorities were able to track Guzmán several times, with the gangster narrowly managing to escape amidst a hail of gunfire. American authorities played an instrumental role in the process, intercepting phone calls between the pair and providing their Mexican counterparts with enough information to allow them to raid 18 known Guzmán residences in the months prior to his January capture. After these shocking details emerged, questions must be raised as to why El Chapo chose to jeopardise his already unstable position as a free man by speaking with such high profile celebrities.

El Chapo does not lack fame; in spite of his role as a leading drug supplier on a global scale, he has gained celebrity status in Mexico, being seen as a type of twisted Robin Hood figure who came from poverty and rose to fame. Both he and his cartel have been one step ahead of US authorities for decades, in spite of their huge budget and sophisticated tracking mechanisms, further augmenting his hero-like status in the country. In addition, Forbes magazine placed El Chapo as number 67 in the “2013’s Most Powerful People” list, estimating that his organisation was operating at an annual turnover of $3 billion.

El Chapo is a household name and well-known figure across the world, he did not require any further exposure and certainly did not lack cash. Perhaps his desire was to leave a lasting legacy in a similar manner to Al Capone, as it appears Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo were interested in directing a film about the Mexican’s life. Yet it seems unthinkable that such a high-profile fugitive would both communicate with, and be interviewed by, Hollywood actors. Mexican cartels have a strictly tight-lipped policy and very rarely offer interviews, only doing so with covered faces and skewed voices. Even then, those who have been interviewed are generally low-ranking members, street dealers and smugglers, certainly not those in leadership positions.

Ultimately, El Chapo can blame only himself for his capture. At this point, it does not seem that Sean Penn tipped off authorities in any way, or that anyone else involved with the interview gave information to authorities. “Loose lips sink ships” is an age-old saying, which denotes criminals’ requirement to embrace a code of silence regarding their activities. But never has such a statement been so relevant than in relation to El Chapo’s capture, particularly in an era when communications tracking is highly sophisticated and advanced. It is now up to Mexican authorities to retain the prisoner at the third attempt, a feat which is made more difficult by the fact that El Chapo’s bribes far exceed the salaries of prison guards. But with the US keen to extradite the Mexican cartel boss, the future looks bleak for El Chapo Guzmán, who’s ageing eyes may never live to see the mountains of Sinaloa, or oversee the transportation of the huge amount of drugs consumed by Americans, again.

Charlie Hebdo- 1 year on

On the 7th January 2014, as the Western world wound down from festive and New Year’s celebrations, the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by 2 Jihadi brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. Both French citizens of Algerian descent, the brothers targeted the magazine’s Parisian offices after it had attracted widespread attention due to its scathing depictions of the prophet Muhammad. 1 year on, and Europe is a very different place as a result of both further terror and an ongoing refugee crisis. Just how much changed as a result of the Charlie Hebdo attacks is unclear, but ultimately the shootings were a sign of things to come in Europe, and marked a new landscape within the region.

While the Charlie Hebdo attacks were initially deemed a revenge attack for the magazine’s portrayal of Muhammad, it quickly became clear that they went beyond this. Europeans saw the attacks as a direct assault on the Western way of life, and the fundamental value of free speech. The “Je Suis Charlie” campaign that followed on social media demonstrated an initial determination to rise above those who sought to disrupt this. Western leaders adopted a similar, unified approach and spoke of the necessity to carry on as normal, and not allow Jihadis the disruption they crave.

However, the changes we have witnessed since demonstrate a massive increase in the presence of Islamic terror and willingness to attack. After a thankfully quiet summer, Paris was again targeted in November, however this time on a much larger scale. The increase in both sophistication and willingness to cause mass death demonstrated the change in radical Islam, which coincided with the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. ISIS’s encouragement to others to attack on Western soil became a reality in the November attacks, which ultimately dwarfed those observed in January.

2 terror attacks in a year is worrying for Paris, a tourist favourite loved the world over, but what is more concerning is the perpetrators, particularly their nationality. As stated, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi are both French citizens, and the mastermind and perpetrators of the November attacks held Belgian passports. This conveys the new age of terror faced by Western authorities, and while intelligence services may try, these are particularly hard to monitor and thwart.

The concept of an enemy within is a worrying one, but one which may have a silver lining. This new age of terror simply demands enhanced information and intelligence sharing among States effected, and may lead to a new-age of European co-operation. As has been seen since the UK voted to undertake air strikes against IS in Syria, intelligence gathering is fundamental to Western safety- even more so than killing Jihadis according to the British army’s operations thus far.

One thing that is also certain is that there simply can be no more mistakes in the war against Islamic terror- the embarrassment that followed the announcement that Salah Abdeslam had been questioned by French police and let go, only to become the most wanted man alive, mustn’t be allowed to be replicated. In an age where Western intelligence is extremely sophisticated, it is up to those involved to gather information efficiently and effectively, in order to overcome the comparatively weak enemy.

Western unity is fundamental to success in this battle; it is often said after tragedies such as Charlie Hebdo and the November attacks that such attacks unite us- it is now time to put this into action and truly demonstrate that the world is committed to unifying against this most abhorrent enemy. IS seek to divide populations, thus we must overcome these targets through co-operation, unity and a genuine determination to overcome.

A New Culture of Fear in the West

Teaching ground to a halt in Los Angeles this week, after all public schools in the area were closed due to a threat made via email, in which it was indicated that several schools were under threat of imminent attack. Ultimately, the threat turned out to be a hoax, but the severity of the LAPD’s reaction embodies a new culture of fear that has spread throughout many Western nations following last month’s attacks in Paris.

The widespread paranoia has spread like an evil plague, after the Paris attacks showed the world that we may not be as safe as we had assumed, even in our own neighbourhoods in cities of the West. Prior to this, whilst the regional strength of ISIS was not overlooked by the general public, the possibility of attacks of Western soil seemed like a mere fantasy of the Jihadi extremists, and not a genuine possibility. But the November attacks showed the world that even the simplest tasks, such as attending a football match or going for dinner as of a Friday evening, may not be as straightforward as we had previously believed.

Following the attacks, several cities have witnessed hyper-vigilant reactions to threats, which ultimately have not materialised. In Hanover, a few days after the Paris attacks, German authorities cancelled a football match between Germany and the Netherlands due to a last-minute threat which indicated that terrorists would target the match, as well as the city’s public transport system. Rumours spread across social media that an ambulance packed full of explosives have been found, and that arrests had been made by armed police within the city. In the end, the city remained peaceful; whether this can be attributed to the expertise of the German intelligence services is something we will never know, but it has transpired that no arrests were made, nor were any explosives uncovered.

In Brussels, unprecedented levels of military were deployed to the streets, after it was purportedly revealed that several terrorists were at large within the city, and were planning a Paris-style attack. The threat to Brussels was deemed to be “serious and immediate”, so much so that the city was placed on lockdown for four days. Undoubtedly, the Molenbleek district of the city was/is a hotbed for radicalisation and extremist tendencies, but the fact that the Brussels lockdown passed without incident must lead us to ask if the risk was exaggerated, amidst post-Paris paranoia.

These incidents, alongside developments from Los Angeles, display the level of fear Western authorities are dealing with as a result of the spread of terror, through the growth of ISIS. We read about global warfare every day in newspapers and on social media platforms, but the concept that we could be in the middle of it is a chilling thought, and one which is simply terrifying Westerners. Returning to the incident in Los Angeles, it has since transpired that authorities in New York were made aware of similar alleged plans at schools in the Big Apple, but quickly realised it was a hoax due to certain errors within the email. The fact that such errors were not noticed by their Californian counterparts illustrates that panic was able to cloud the judgement and rational thinking of a world-renowned intelligence service.

The problem faced at this point is a unique one; terrorist attacks which have occurred have generally been carried out by nationals, who have been radicalised overseas. The new “enemy within” is more difficult to both monitor and prevent, an additional factor which has instilled fear into Western citizens. Reports from inside Syria undoubtedly shock readers, but the concept of living amidst terrorist cells in Western Europe and the US puts people on edge, particularly in the wake of the widespread killing witnessed in Paris, a city which many tourists have visited and found themselves attached to. As a result, many were forced to accept the chilling reality that they could have been drinking outside Le Carillon bar when the attacks took place, or at the Bataclan theatre.

This plays directly into the hands of ISIS, who will thrive on causing fear within Western borders. ISIS, as any terrorist organisation would, recognise that fear equates to power, and the concept of their power spreading to European and American soil is music to their ears. Let us not overlook the fact that, on the grand scheme of things, ISIS is far from a militaristic superpower on the ground; they have no jets, their surface to air missiles are no match for coalition aircrafts and their weaponry is far from advanced. Therefore, the fact that, in spite of this, they have managed to spread fear throughout the Western world is an achievement in itself for the group. As well as this, it makes the propaganda released by the group seem more convincing than it otherwise would- promises to “liberate Istanbul” and “conquer Rome” would once have been brushed aside, but after the Paris attacks, many live in fear that such could be a reality we face.

The difficulty for authorities is preventing this spread, while still protecting their citizens. The necessary secrecy authorities must adopt in relation to these matters means that action such as the deployment of additional police officers or military personnel is likely to raise alarm that an attack is possible. Governments must work alongside the media in an attempt to prevent the spread of paranoia, as the press is often over-indulgent in their reporting of certain issues which may not even warrant reporting in the first place. Transparency is also key, and Governments should seek to keep citizens informed when possible, as well as working alongside police forces to reasonably identify genuine risks, and differentiate them from potential hoaxes.

We, as citizens, must not live in the state of fear craved by the extremists- ultimately this allows them the most precious victory of all; disruption of the Western way of life. We must continue to enjoy the beautiful cities we are blessed to live in, and make the most of opportunities to travel to others. While vigilance is wise, we must continue to defy terrorists by enjoying the freedom we have, one which they loathe and seek to destroy. It is fundamental to focus on winning the mental battle against ISIS; we are mentally stronger than the enemy and overwhelmingly more powerful. Let us use their evil to form new alliances, stand side by side and defy their most hateful objectives.


Oil Price Continues to Plummet

How is the current oil crisis effecting those who rely on its sale?

It was today announced that the price of crude oil has fallen for the 7th straight session, amidst significant worries about oversupply across the globe. The price ($35 a barrel) is the lowest recorded since February 2009, which comes as a blow after it appeared that the oil market was beginning to stabilise after last year’s decline. However, such a development could have very real consequences for countries reliant on export, and could lead to tense relations within the market.

Oil has proved to be an extremely controversial topic of late; Russia’s accusation that Turkey is heavily involved in the purchasing of crude oil from ISIS only heightened already strained relations between the countries. This, alongside the targeting of Islamic State oil fields with coalition air strikes, means that oil has been an unnaturally popular topic in recent months, and it seems unwilling to change any time soon. Reports from inside Raqqa, capital of the so-called Islamic State, conveyed that fuel prices were beginning to rise within the caliphate. However, this position is not one which is mirrored elsewhere.

The main issue with oil is, quite simply, that supply is outweighing demand. In spite of this, Russia and Gulf producers have been clear about their refusal to cut their crude oil output even if prices drop below $20 per barrel. Russia currently produces around 10 million barrels of crude oil each day, and exports half of these. The main export destinations for Russian oil are Germany and China, which demonstrates a mutual reliance I’m sure Putin and Merkel would rather not address. Overall, oil makes up 60% of Russia’s exports, and accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP. It is therefore evident that such fluctuations in the price per barrel can/will have grave implications for the Russian economy. In the second half of 2014, the decline in oil prices led to the Russian ruble declining in value by 59% relative to the U.S. dollar; in an era where Russo-American relations are as frosty as they have been since the Cold War, a Russian economic slump is the last thing Putin needs. The leader’s attempts to address this issue last year were less than popular, both within Russia and beyond; the imposition of interest rates of up to 17% were Putin’s answer to the sharp increase in import prices which resulted from the Ruble’s decline. In other nations, punishing one’s citizens in such a manner may lead to a loss of confidence in the governing party, but Putin’s immortal stance allowed him to progress unscathed in his attempts to stabilise his country’s economy.

Russia is not the only one suffering as a result of the global decline in prices; Venezuela desperately pleaded with OPEC members in early December 2015 to reduce global output by 5%, amidst economic chaos in the country which has led to the collapse of currency and a huge electoral loss for the country’s government, the first loss of its majority in 16 years. In spite of this, OPEC failed to reach an agreement on output reduction. Such news could prove devastating for Venezuela, who boast larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and are almost wholly reliant on the export of oil. The price per barrel in Venezuela fell to $31.24 this week, the lowest price in 11 years, and considerably lower than the price in pre-crash 2008 ($126.46 per barrel). When 2 million barrels are being exported from the country each day, it is impossible to overlook the long-term economic consequences that such a tumble will result in. After OPEC’s failure to reach an agreement in relation to global output, it is likely that Venezuela will be forced to look for a solution internally- this is unlikely to be economically beneficial for the country short-term, but any alternative seems impossible at this stage.

So where does the USA and UK fit into all of this? Such a decline is not particularly unwelcome news in the US, where the fuel tax rate is lower than many other nations. A reduction in the pre-tax price of oil has a more immediate and significant impact than elsewhere. In fact, many economists believe this decline in the oil price is the equivalent of a tax cut in terms of promoting economic growth in the US. That being said, the US has also been a contributing factor to the current oil situation; the significant growth in US energy production, resulting from techniques such as fracking, is a further cause of the decline in oil prices. It seems unlikely that the US will rush to the aid of countries such as Russia and Venezuela in their bid to economically stabilise amidst a chaotic oil market. And with alternative methods of production booming in the US, Obama’s stance in this area is highly unlikely to change any time soon.

While, at this point, the decline in oil prices has had little impact on the UK economy as a whole, many warn that sustained low prices make it impossible for companies based in the North Sea to generate profits and that jobs may have to be cut accordingly. On a more positive note, the slump in oil prices has led to the plummeting of petrol prices; Goldman Sachs indicates prices could fall below £1 a litre for the first time in 6 years. Currently the price per litre of unleaded petrol is £1.07 on average; if predictions are correct, this could fall to less than £1 within the first few months of 2016. Had Scotland voted in favour of independence in 2014, such instability within the oil market would have been most unwelcome news for Nicola Sturgeon. The volatile market was a key argument of the “No” campaign in the lead up to the referendum, who predicted that a crash in oil prices could economically cripple Scotland, who are a key producer of oil within Europe. In spite of this, Scotland’s commitment to the production of clean energy has placed renewables at the heart of Scottish economic growth. With wind-farms, both on-shore and off-shore, regularly popping up throughout the country, and attitudes towards solar panels seemingly changing for the better, it is clear that Scotland’s long-term plan is to stray from a reliance on North Sea oil, as the country moves towards a more sustainable and less volatile means of energy production.

It is evident that the fluctuation of oil prices seems unlikely to stabilise any time soon, with continued rapid production and widespread disinterest in increasing imports thereof. Aside from Syria, where it was today reported that fuel prices have increased, the global oil market is in a state of volatility, which has a domino effect on the economies of those countries who rely heavily on its export. In spite of Venezuela’s pleas, countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran simply refuse to reduce their oil output, a position which is unlikely to change, even if the current slump continues. Until a global solution is sought to the current problem, it is up to individual countries to do their best to tackle the problem at domestic level.